Short Story Review: The Trebuchet Murder by Susanna Gregory

Set in 1380, The Trebuchet Murder is a historical murder mystery set in Ely Hall at the University of Cambridge.

Brother Edmund is secretary to Prior Richard, warden of Ely Hall, the chosen college for the most promising of students in the Benedictine order.  Brother Henry, the college’s former Professor of Theology has recently died, leaving the position vacant.  It is now up to Prior Richard, with the help of Brother Edmund to find his replacement.

There are three candidates applying for the position: Brother Luke, Brother Jean and Brother Bravin, the latter being greatly detestable to all, but due to circumstances beyond his control, Prior Richard is being leaned upon quite heavily to pick him.

However, when Brother Bravin is found dead, buried beneath the decaying timbers of a trebuchet, Brother Edmund quickly realises that his demise was no accident.  But who was responsible?  Brother Edmund investigates.

The Trebuchet Murder is a captivating tale that quickly engages the reader, bringing medieval Cambridge to life before their eyes.  The characters are realistic and the historical detail greatly enriches the story.

I absolutely loved this short story.  It was clever, and it offered an ending I never expected.  A really enjoyable, quick historical read.  Highly recommended.

This short was found in Murder Through the Ages: A Bumper Anthology of Historical Mysteries, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.


Book Review: The Seance by John Harwood

The Seance by John Harwood is a Victorian mystery that captures the imagination and makes for compelling reading.

The book begins in London in 1889, with Constance Langton, whose family has never quite recovered after the death of her sister, Alma, some years earlier.  Raised alone and unloved by her parents, she finds herself drawn into the world of the spiritualist, if only to try and abate her mother’s enduring grief.  However, what happens is far removed from what she expects.

Then Constance learns that she has inherited Wraxford Hall, a house in Suffolk with a dark and sinister past, where stories of ghosts, murders and strange disappearances abound.  She finds herself drawn into the mysteries, desperate to learn the truth for in her heart she knows all is not as it seems.  When a man from the Society for Psychical Research wishes to carry out an investigation at Wraxford Hall, Constance agrees, and soon finds herself in the isolated, decaying house that she has read so much about.

But how will she fare in it when it has been the ruin of so many others?  And perhaps more importantly, will she find the answers she seeks?

I don’t often discuss book covers when reviewing books but I was instantly drawn to the cover for The Seance, in the same way that Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist caught my eye.  The descriptions of Wraxford Hall were vivid and gloriously spooky.  The separate narratives that combine to create the story work so well together, each revealing little pieces of the tale at a time.  The characters are engaging and carry off their respective roles with ease.

As I worked my way through The Seance, I couldn’t help but think of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  The book is so cleverly written that when you start reading you believe you know you are reading a ghost story.  The question is, are you?

I was absolutely captivated by this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.  I can honestly say that The Seance is one of my ten favourite reads of the year, and in my opinion, you will not be disappointed.  It is one of those books in which a reader can very easily get lost…

Book Review: Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches

Wounds of Honour is the first book in the Empire series by Anthony Riches.

The years is 181 AD and Marcus Valerius Aquila, an officer in the Praetorian Guards finds himself posted to the outer extremities of the Empire, Britain, for a reason he doesn’t learn until he gets there.  The Emperor Commodus has declared that he and his family are traitors and have been condemned to death.  The only way he can survive is to take up a new name and a new post as a centurion in a unit stationed on Hadrian’s Wall.

But nowhere is safe.  There are enemies among the natives to both the north and south of the wall as well as hidden enemies in the Roman army itself, searching for the traitor.  Marcus Tribulus Corvus, as he becomes known has to prove himself; to justify the risks others have taken, to stay alive and to keep as many of his unit’s men alive when the war comes.

Wounds of Honour is jam-packed full of accurate historical detail bringing the period in which it is set to life in a vivid, almost shocking, graphic – very Roman – way.  The story was gripping, although I found the number of characters a little over-bearing at times as I struggled to recall who-was-who in terms of some of the previously mentioned minor characters.  However this is hardly any criticism and such a minor issue did not detract from the enjoyment of the story at all.

The pace of the narrative seemed to pick up quite dramatically during the second half of the book.  The dialogue and language was colourful and the interaction between the main characters flowed smoothly.  Both the story and the people in it were engaging.

If you like action-packed stories or are a fan of ancient Roman fiction, especially military fiction, I recommend you give this read.  I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the series to see what lies in store for Marcus and his Tungrians.

Short Story Review: Trunk Call by Marilyn Todd

Trunk Call is set in Rome at the beginning of the first century.  Rufus Vatia, the purveyor of imperial elephants and a man with a mischievous sense of humour, is lying on his deathbed surrounded by three women claiming to his wife.  Being a favourite of the emperor, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio has been sent to determine which of the three wives has the most legitimate claim on his estate after his death, in the hope that a scandal can be avoided.

When he arrives at Rufus Vatia’s home he also finds Claudia Seferius there, who confides in the imperial agent that she knows for a fact that the ‘dying man’ isn’t dying at all, but is playing a practical joke.  So, it comes as a great surprise when Rufus Vatia actually dies, and not by natural means.

But who killed him? Was it one of the three wives?  The rather nervous-looking doctor?  Or Milo the steward, one of the only people granted access to the dying man’s chamber?

Trunk Call was an enjoyable and light-hearted, quick read.  The dialogue was amusing and the characters believable, interacting well together.

This short was found in Murder Through the Ages: A Bumper Anthology of Historical Mysteries, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.


Book Review: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

The book begins in 1348, and news of the plague has reached England.  As the first victims begin to fall, panic begins to spread.  Under strained circumstances, where no-one is willing to completely trust another, a diverse group of people are brought together, for no matter how suspicious you are, you will not survive alone.

This company comprises of Camelot, a disfigured travelling relic-seller and pedlar of hope; Zophiel, a magician and conjuror with a wagon full of secrets; Rodrigo, a musician and his apprentice, Jofre, both natives of Venice; Osmund and Adela, a young couple on the run, and who are expecting their first child; Pleasance, a herbalist and midwife; Cygnus a storyteller with one arm and one wing and finally, a small strange girl, Narigorm, who reads the runes.

The company are forced to travel around in England in an attempt to out-run the plague as it begins sweeping across the country, but that is not the only danger.  Food is scarce; the land is slowly starving as a result of bad weather and poor harvests, and everyone has secrets, dark secrets that they want to ensure remain hidden at all costs.  But as the book description explains:…the lies you tell will be the death of you.

Company of Liars is absorbing, compelling reading.  It is easy to get lost in Medieval England as Karen Maitland provides accurately vivid descriptions of both the places the company visit and the people they meet on their travels.

Religion, superstition, fear, persecution, desperation…Company of Liars has it all.  Everything about this book is engaging and more than anything, I had to keep reading to learn whether or not the plague would finally catch up with them, and if it did, who would survive.  There were many twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing as to how the story would conclude.

Overall, Company of Liars was one of the best historical fiction novels I have read.  I expected no less from Karen Maitland and wasn’t disappointed.

I recommend this book to all lovers of historical fiction.  A great read!

Book Review: The Eleventh Question by Dianne Gray

The Eleventh Question is a fabulous tale…one that had me in tears a few times!  Indeed, I think it is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read, and no doubt one I shall return to read again and again…

The characters are believable and the storyline captivating; in fact, once I began this book, I could not stop reading it until I had reached the end!  Well done to the author for writing such an endearing, heart-warming tale that has the ability to move between the worlds of fantasy and real life with ease.  On the one hand we are following the tale of Arista, a fifteen year old girl who, whilst going through a difficult period in her life, is faced with the big philosophical questions that we as humans face.  On the other hand we have Caro facing questions of a more spiritual nature.  These threads are woven together splendidly as we are taken through two separate journeys of loss and confusion leading us towards hope, inspiration, understanding and ultimately, empowerment.

Arista’s tale is set on one side of the world, whilst Caro’s is set on the other.

Arista’s story involves her struggle with bullying at school and a mother facing struggles of her own – an abusive boyfriend, alcohol and gambling.  Eventually, Arista is sent to stay with a foster-carer, Frankie, who is a rural vet; however, it is the surprise arrival of Archie, a well-behaved and well-trained rottweiler, that in the end leads the teenager to a place where she feels like she belongs and is happy.

Caro’s is the aduyante (helper / acolyte) of a powerful Seer named Diosa, who waits and watches for those who ask the big questions.  Together, they witness Arista’s tale and all she faces as reaches the questions, one by one.  It is Caro’s job to describe the emotions Arista is feeling to the Seer, but along the way, he finds himself trying to understand his own feelings and emotions, and place in the world.

The Eleventh Question makes you see the world around you in a different light.  It is certainly a captivating read, one that can inspire and empower the reader.

Highly Recommended!

I downloaded this ebook for free when the author had the book on promotion at Smashwords.

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a truly heart-warming story.   When Wellington the dog is murdered, the only person seemingly interested in solving the crime is Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome.

He lives at home with his father in Swindon, his mother having passed away.  One night, out on a walk, he discovers that their neighbours dog has been murdered with a garden fork, and in the spirit of his favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes, Christopher begins an investigation to find out who is responsible.  The only problem is that he has never left the street in which they live on his own, and he doesn’t like talking to strangers.  However, he isn’t going to let that get in his way.

To record his investigation, an investigation that the adults around him do not wish him to pursue for their own reasons, he is encouraged at school to write a book.  The chapters are separated using prime numbers, so instead of having 1,2,3 the first three chapters are 2, 3, 5, and so on.  This is because Christopher likes prime numbers.

The tale is both funny and moving.  It is very well-written, and truly insightful, offering a new perspective on the world as we are shown it through the eyes of Christopher.  I could hardly put it down, and the twists in the tale were quite unexpected.

I certainly recommend giving this book a read if you haven’t yet read it.

Book Review: Battleaxe by Sara Douglass (Book One of The Axis Trilogy)

Battleaxe is the first book in The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglas.  As you work your way through the book, you become instantly aware that there are a plethora of threads woven together to create the story.  This makes it both crammed full of detail but also more complex perhaps than the average fantasy book.

The story centres around the illegitimate son of a dead princess, named Axis.  He is the ‘BattleAxe’, the leader of the ‘Axe Wielders’, a prestigious fighting force in the land of Achar.  His connection to the Royal family is not recognised by them.  Borneheld, the King’s son and heir, and the leader of the army has a strong hatred for Axis, his illegitimate half brother.

Borneheld has to return to his border castle in the north; the Forbidden, wraith-like monsters only remembered in legend, seem to have returned.  Axis is charged with taking Borneheld’s beautiful bride-to-be, Faraday, to the castle, but along the way, they fall in love.  Magic, myth, love, religion, prophecy and war…nothing and no one is as they seem, and the world that Douglass has created is vivid, if a little formulaic at times.

It was fast-paced for the majority of the story, though I felt the beginning was a little slow.  The characters on the whole were engaging and believable.  The setting was richly described, but some of the terms used I didn’t quite like, StarMan being one of them.  That being said, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.  The various twists and turns in the tale kept you guessing as to what was going to happen next.  I am looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.

Book Review: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The first book in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series offers us our first meeting with the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective.

On the death of her father, Obed Ramotswe, Precious sells all the cattle he has left her and starts a new life as a private detective in Gaborone.  She buys a house on Zebra Drive and some premises at the foot of Kgale Hill, and then waits.  However, she doesn’t have to wait for long.

As the story progresses, we are given a glimpse into a variety of the cases that she is asked to investigate when she first opens the doors to the agency, including missing husbands, missing children, and missing fingers, to name but a few, as well as a glimpse into her family background.  We are also introduced to a number of characters who are set to become firm favourites in the series: Mr J. L. B. Matekoni who runs Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and who is in love with Precious; and Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s secretary who has just recently graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with an average of ninety-seven per cent.

Precious Ramotswe is wonderful as the central character: she is compassionate, observant, resolute, determined, honest and pursues cases with sense and logic.  She is a strong character and not very easily intimidated.

This is a colourful story that brings Southern Africa to life.  The descriptions are vivid and the characters easy to engage with.  It is bursting with humour and written in a simple easy style making it an addictive, enjoyable read.

A firm favourite that will leave you feeling happy and uplifted.

Book Review: The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland

Having read ‘The Owl Killers’ by Karen Maitland, I knew I had to read her other books.  And I was certainly not disappointed with ‘The Gallows Curse’.

This dark supernatural tale, set in medieval Norfolk, is narrated by a mandrake, for it is through a mandrake that the many threads of this rich, vibrant story come together.

The book is set during the period of English history called the ‘Interdict’, during the reign of King John.  It was an uncertain time; the King had fallen foul of the Pope and as a consequence the church in effect ceased to operate.  There were no church services, no marriages, no baptisms, no funerals, no absolution to be given for sins and no masses to be said for the dead.

The story centres around a villein (a serf tied to a medieval manor and considered the property of the said manor), named Elena.  Her wants in life are simple: to marry the boy she loves and have a family, but the will of others and the hands of fate have other plans.

As the story unravels, we encounter treason, espionage, curses, magic, revenge, an evil Lord of the Manor, a cunning woman, tales from the Crusades as well as a medieval brothel.  One thing’s for sure, I didn’t expect the tale to end the way it did!  There are so many twists and turns that the author not only keeps you guessing as to what will happen next, but ensures that you will struggle to put the book down until you have finished it.

Karen Maitland has a unique gift: the ability to convincingly transport her readers to the darkness that was the Middle Ages, when life was often short, hard and brutal.  But we are also shown that there could be brief glimmers of joy and light also.

The book is completed with detailed historical notes, outlining the historical background to the story as well as a glossary explaining local dialect words alongside medieval terms.

Also, in an edition exclusive to Waterstones, Karen Maitland explains 25 pieces of medieval superstition and folklore, including ‘Raven of Death’ and ‘A Corpse at the Crossroads’, which in itself made for very interesting reading.